UAE’s National Day: Why are we celebrating a place like Dubai?

Published: December 7, 2015

The sponsorship system practised in the Gulf's oil-rich Arab states have been criticised by human rights organisations. PHOTO: AFP

United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently celebrated its 44th National Day on December 2, 2015.  As expected, Pakistanis residing in the UAE took part in celebrations too. Pakistan’s fascination with Dubai, is not uncommon, or hard to understand.

Dubai has always been positioned to be Middle East’s answer to the West’s glitz and glamour –skyscrapers galore, an economy that is home to global brands, and jobs that apparently promise a life from rags to riches – all in the pseudo comfort of supposedly Islamic settings. To the religious-minded, it offers Shariah Law and the comfort of being next door to Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed centre of Islam. To the non-religious minded, it offers pubs, nightclubs and beaches.


Travelling to Dubai is not a hassle either, unlike Europe and North America. Depending on where in Pakistan you fly from, you are in Dubai within a couple of hours. For Pakistanis who wish to live and work abroad, Dubai offers the perfect solution.

According to data collected last year, almost 12 per cent of all expatriates in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman are Pakistanis, second only to Indians who make up 25 per cent. This is the highest percentage of Pakistanis residing in a foreign country, pointing an obvious finger at the choice of most people when it comes to moving abroad.


While most Pakistanis (a small percentage of the total) living in the Dubai are quick to sing praises of what the country has to offer, there is a stunning lack of concrete criticism towards Dubai’s dark side.

The number of Pakistanis or total expatriates for that matter, who have well to do blue collar jobs, is miniscule. Most expatriates come to Dubai as low-wage labourers, with dreams of a better life, only to live in conditions that would shame the worst of human right violators.

What transpires in Dubai only has one perfect definition – slavery.

While Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s image beams down on people across the city, the fact remains that his absolute rule has developed three types of residents in Dubai – the well-to-do expats, the local Emiratis, and the pre-dominantly South Asian, underpaid, and monstrously-abused  foreign labourers that built the city with their toil, sweat and quite literally, blood. They are visible everywhere but the rest of the population has been programmed into either looking away or not paying attention to them.

Sonapur, which means ‘land of gold’ in Urdu/Hindi, hosts a large number of these expatriates. Every evening, men who build Capitalism’s poster child are shifted from their work cages to their residential cages. Until recently, this daily journey was undertaken on cattle trucks but since this was hurting the Emirate’s visual appeal, Dubai decided to take things to an even uglier level, using small metal buses to transport the labourers, where they sweat and suffocate in inhumane conditions.

While what is described above is only a drop in the vast ocean of human right violations in Dubai (much like the rest of Middle East), there has been virtually no stone left unturned that highlights these issues. Not surprisingly, the annual Freedom House report on Freedom in the World has listed the United Arab Emirates as ‘Not Free’ every year since 1999. Dubai itself has been described as housing ‘less than humane’ conditions for foreign labourers that reside there according to Human Rights Watch.


While the horrors of low-wage employment are obvious, the madness does not end here. The UAE has one of the most repressive political systems in the world, identical to its other Middle Eastern neighbours that hold the banner of Islam loud and proud. This political repressiveness trickles down to Dubai too, with flogging and stoning being common punishments for stepping out of line.

Even though the UAE came out of the Arab Spring apparently unscratched, a large number of activists in areas, including Dubai, were jailed, tortured, or ended up being the victims of forced disappearances.

With the UAE and particularly Dubai’s unforgiving way of life known to everyone, it would be good to see Pakistanis living there speaking out about the more dominant, dark side that impacts the majority, instead of highlighting the mild sunshine that is only restricted to a small minority.

Dubai is not the heaven it is made out to be. It is the global centre of slavery where human life is expendable, and labour is abused, used and then some more. This is the Dubai that needs to be highlighted.

salman Zafar

Salman Zafar

The writer works in the Education Sector and tweets as @salmanzafar1985 (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • vinsin

    Slavery is legal in Islam. Dubai never proclaimed to be a secular country.Recommend

  • Samir

    Dubai has got much better labour laws than nywhere in Asia ..I have woked in several countries including Dubai !Recommend

  • Imran

    I am sure you were refused a job in Dubai. Once in Dubai, no one wants to go back to their countries wether he is labor or upper class, wether he is asian or european..this is my experience of living in Dubai for 15 years.Recommend

  • talha usmani

    But I believe there is a choice these expat labors have that is to continue or dis-continue work after they return back to their home countries after completing their contract terms. But more and more seem to return back to work under the same conditions without any preconditions. Always there is a choice. Its for a person to make. Nobody is forcing them into this slavery.
    Most of the expat labors know what conditions would be on offer in these countries but still they decide to go and work, so I believe it is not the fault of those governments but it is the fault of people who accept these working conditions.Recommend

  • Milind A

    What a cynical outlook? Not everybody lives for glamour, money. Some live for ideals, fairness and integrity as well. Ironically, you would be the first one to parrot the cliche about Islam being about tolerance, fairness and lofty ideals, but unwilling to practise these in real life.Recommend

  • Khurram

    you believe they have a choice as people like you have been the lucky ones air conditioned offices and tickets for home. there is a serious issue of exploitation amongst labourers and countires like qatar had due to introduce reforms before the FIFA world cup. And not so long ago they were using small kids as jockeys for camle racing -may be the kids had a choice as well. it was after a lot of hue and cry that was chnaged. We feel happy for them to have the successful model they have created but that should trickle down to these labourers as wellRecommend

  • ra ne

    Dubai may be better than other Islamic countries. Afghanistan was a good country in 1960s. Dubai and Turkey will be Islamic soon. wait and see.Recommend

  • Ali S

    The author quotes a piece that is 6 years old (at the worst of the recession), labour laws have improved in Dubai since then. But his points are still valid – the situation for Pakistani laborers is terrible across the Middle East (especially in less prominent states like Qatar, Kuwait etc). We need much better (and more relevant) role models than Dubai.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Slavery……that’s a bit dramatic. At best you could call it economic exploitation……and that takes place to a greater or lesser extent in many, many countries.Recommend

  • Desi Gunner

    yeah….same can also be said for muslims who go to western countries and cry islamophobia…Recommend

  • JP

    What’s with the “underpaid, and monstrously-abused foreign labourers that built the city with their toil, sweat and quite literally, blood”

    They don’t do it voluntarily nor are they slaves and if they feel they are not compensated well, they shouldn’t work. I have spoken to numerous labourers who have worked in the UAE and they all described the poor standards but when asked why they did it, they all said they were paid well more than what they would have earned in their home countries. At the end of the day somebody has to do it and if they are paid extra i believe its fair.Recommend

  • JP

    I have waited one full day nothing has happened. How much longer?Recommend

  • UzairH

    For anyone interested in watching a short documentary on the living conditions for the expat laborers, here’s one:
    alternate link if Youtube is blocked:

  • istaburg

    Which book have u been reading … slavery is not legal in islam.. has not been since it was outlawed during the time of the holy prophetRecommend

  • vinsin

    Slavery is never been outlawed and still legal in many Islamic countries. Qasim came to Subcontinent for slaves etc.

    Dont be ashamed to have a slave.Recommend